What to do with earrings returned to sender by postal system?
February 6, 2018 12:09 AM   Subscribe

I started selling earrings recently and am wondering what to do with earrings in parcels that get lost in the postal system and are eventually returned to sender (me) for hygiene reasons.

I do not allow returns of earrings for hygiene reasons. However, based on my experience with selling other jewelry, sometimes parcels get lost in the postal system overseas and are not delivered for unknown reasons. The parcels are eventually returned to sender (me) by the postal system but I am wondering what would be a good policy to deal with this scenario.

For other non-intimate jewelry, I would normally resend to the customer if they still want the item but with earrings I can't be sure that someone (postal worker? who knows who) didn't try them on while they were in transit. The earrings are normally packed in a cardboard box wrapped in brown paper. I have just ordered security tape like this.
Once the tape arrives, I'm planning to tape the lid to the the cardboard box around all four sides before wrapping in brown paper. The box looks something like this.

Will this be enough to ensure the earrings have been unworn in transit or am I being paranoid? As a germaphobe, I feel uneasy handling earrings that might possibly have been worn and also I don't want to resend my customer used earrings too. I am wondering if I should just refund the customer the money in such cases and trash the earrings but of course I will incur a loss. Someone suggested shrink-wrapping in an answer to a previous question but I cannot afford a shrink-wrapping machine so the security tape is the best I can do.

Rational advice welcome, especially from fellow retailers?
posted by whitelotus to Health & Fitness (28 answers total)
I am not a germaphobe, but I'd dump them in some disinfectant and then repackage them.
posted by pompomtom at 1:01 AM on February 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

*Earring holes are not raw flesh, they have an epidermis barrier of some sort.
*You can clean unknown-origin earrings. Dip the hooks or posts in bleach. Just pour a bit in the cap and dip the hooks in that then wipe off. This should kill any germs.
*Save tape by security-taping the smaller interior package or bag rather than the exterior packaging.
* I have previously been a manufacturer and face-to-face seller of earrings and I never let people try them on. I think that new earrings should be clean so I appreciate your concern. That said, I buy second hand earrings at the thrift store and wear them immediately. I've never washed a pair of used earrings that I have bought for myself and I have never suffered any consequences.
posted by Thella at 1:06 AM on February 6, 2018 [10 favorites]

I'd recommend thoroughly disinfecting - though not in bleach, because I suspect traces of bleach could irritate sensitive skin during the kind of long-term contact that is wearing earrings. I use soap or a skin-appropriate disinfectant like octanidine.

Your customers also don't have guarantees apart from security tape that no errant postal worker has tried on earrings that did arrive at their house, so I would hope they also wash them before wearing.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:48 AM on February 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

My earring holes never healed fully, so I’d probably ask a tattoo artist how they clean their needles and follow that procedure.
posted by tilde at 3:20 AM on February 6, 2018

Disinfect with alcohol and resend. It's nice you are thinking of this - it hadn't event occurred to me!
posted by Toddles at 3:33 AM on February 6, 2018

Your customers also don't have guarantees apart from security tape that no errant postal worker has tried on earrings that did arrive at their house, so I would hope they also wash them before wearing.

This is an astute observation, but unless everyone washes their new earrings before wearing them, the whole premise of the question is nothing but incredibly insulting to postal workers. People buy earrings in shops all the time that have been handled by however many people, never mind second hand earrings, as noted.
posted by hoyland at 4:22 AM on February 6, 2018 [24 favorites]

I always clean new earrings with rubbing alcohol before I wear them.

It never occurred to me to worry about contamination from other people's ear holes since I'm not sure that's even really a thing unless you've got unhealed piercings yourself. I clean them to get rid of dirt/grime, glue residue, machine oil, things like that. Alcohol always works just fine.
posted by phunniemee at 4:35 AM on February 6, 2018 [8 favorites]

While I admit that my germ-related standards seem to be far lower than yours, I would also gently suggest that you're mis-estimating the amount of time/opportunity/bandwidth that postal service employees have for shenanigans.

The mail is a massive, unending and unyielding river, and much of it is handled by automation. I think it's highly unlikely that anyone who works for the postal service is opening up in-transit packages and rooting around just to see what's inside and trying on jewelry. Even if they did that once in a blue moon, what's the chance that their hands would land on *your* package among all others?

Wipe the earrings with disinfectant as much as possible to make yourself feel better and consider the problem solved. :)
posted by mccxxiii at 5:20 AM on February 6, 2018 [12 favorites]

Tamper-evident packaging. Best solution to a problem is to never have that problem.
posted by Leon at 5:27 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

...with earrings I can't be sure that someone (postal worker? who knows who) didn't try them on while they were in transit.

Huh? These hypothetical packages are undamaged and just got misrouted? No, nobody is going to go through all the effort of surreptitiously opening a random box, or stealing an item during a customs inspection, just to try it on and then tuck everything back together neatly. If security tape will make you feel better though, go for it. If the earrings are packaged in a little plastic pouch, you could even only use a tiny bit of it to seal that. As a customer, I'd think nothing of that, whereas the entire box being sealed that way would be odd, unless your earrings cost hundreds of dollars. (At which point, I will admit, earrings being declared at hundreds of dollars might be enough to catch someone's attention... but not so much that they'd break security tape, unless they were just going to steal them.)

By the way, part of the reason your packages get misrouted might well be that outside layer of brown paper. It's vulnerable to catching in a processing machine and potentially getting ripped off, taking all the address information with it, so your boxes may well be getting processed by hand more often than average, which is slower and can be more error-prone. That or they're being entombed in a solid layer of packaging tape -- that was the company's policy where I worked, even though customers hated it. Moral of the story is, you might want to reconsider your whole packing plan to cut down on bounce-backs in the first place.
posted by teremala at 5:30 AM on February 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Further clarification: From my research, proper sterilization is only possible with an autoclave which is what tattoo artists and doctor's offices use but of course few people would have one at home.

What happens is that my parcels disappear for months and are then returned from overseas. I do not know what happens to them in the meantime: whether they might have been delivered to anyone or stayed at the post office all the while so a customer or a non-postal worker might have access to it. They usually appear unopened but I can't be sure.

teremala: How should I best pack it for shipping? I can understand the brown paper thing but how does the packing tape hamper things? The packages are usually labelled "return to sender unclaimed" and "unable to forward" by USPS. Address label is correct and clear, not ripped off or anything. My parcels require a signature (this is necessary for tracking) so I think in some cases the customer may have failed to pick it up from the post office, resulting in the parcel being returned to me.
posted by whitelotus at 5:53 AM on February 6, 2018

am I being paranoid?

I think so, yes. I'd try to walk a reasonable line here. To my mind your concern of someone actually wearing these earrings is unreasonable but I think it is reasonable to want to somehow ensure that packages have not been messed with. That said, I'd also be concerned about presentation of your items so that they look nice and so the cardboard boxes are not looking like a crime scene. If I got a box with nice earrings in them and it had tape on all four sides (I am not sure if this is what you are suggesting) I would not like it, I could not use it as a gift etc. So I'd maybe take the nice looking box and put it in a plastic bag or something with one (small) strip of tape on it. This way you look like you are serious but you are not impacting the look/feel of the actual gift.
posted by jessamyn at 6:07 AM on February 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

I have never cleaned earrings before wearing them. It has never even occurred to me to do so. You’re overthinking it, in my opinion.
posted by greermahoney at 7:00 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

From my research, proper sterilization is only possible with an autoclave

This is both unnecessary and impossible to achieve. I promise you that the clean earrings in your own home that you wear every day without fear are not sterile.

You know in shops, like actual brick and mortar shops, earrings are sold on little plastic cards out in the open where anyone can touch them, right?

No one sells sterile earrings unless they are going to be placed into a fresh wound.
posted by phunniemee at 7:26 AM on February 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

People try on earrings in stores all the time. I think you can sell them even if they have been returned because they didn’t like them. Swabbing them with some alcohol would be a responsible gesture.

If one of your buyers has an open wound in their ear piercing it’s their responsibility to clean new earrings or buy sterile ones at a piercing shop (or better yet stop wearing jewelry so their ears can heal). After all, the ones you sell have had your grimy fingers all over them, right? (No insult intended — all human fingers are much grimier than most human ears).
posted by amaire at 7:52 AM on February 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

To answer your question, I would sterilize the earrings and re-send them. I wouldn't seal the jewelry box itself, but maybe wrap it in brown paper and find a fun way to seal it - just off the top of my head, you could do an old-fashioned wax seal.
If the package came back and someone had messed that up it would be obvious. Also, as Jessamyn said, presentation matters, and a wax seal with your initial would be much prettier than "crime scene" tape. Then maybe put all this into a standard cardboard box and ship it that way - FedEx refused to let me mail a tape-wrapped package through their facility and tried to get me to buy one of their boxes (at FedEx prices.) While this initially peeved me and I got around it by tossing the parcel in a FedEx drop box and yes, it got safely delivered, on second thought, I wouldn't really recommend that approach. Boxes are standard, tape is not.

For sterilization I have often cleaned my favorite earrings in peroxide, letting them sit for hours before taking them out. I don't know if that's the best liquid you could use, but they certainly bubble like crazy and supposedly that means all the germs are being annihilated. Maybe this visual confirmation that any germs are being killed is what you need to feel the earrings are clean? I am not a germaphobe, but I have lived with one, and she loved peroxide.

If you cannot find a way to sterilize the earrings to your satisfaction than I would suggest just trashing them, for your peace of mind.
posted by Crystal Fox at 8:08 AM on February 6, 2018

You might donate these pairs, rather than selling them. People will disinfect secondhand earrings to the level which meets their own personal standards, and the tax deduction would help offset your loss.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:41 AM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is insane, yes. Postal workers are not trying on your earrings. No one is thinking poorly of you for not having your earrings sterilized. No one's catching anything from secondhand earrings. Breathe, then repackage and send them on their merry way.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:13 AM on February 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Stealing packages can maybe occur in some of the circumstances you describe, where the package may be out of control of the recipient or postal service for periods of time. But I gotta say...I cannot conceive of a circumstance where the package is opened, merchandise worn but not stolen, and then returned to sender. That doesn't make sense to me as a human behavior--if you're accessing packages that aren't yours, you're probably stealing or discarding if they aren't valuable, not playing dress-up for a day before lovingly repackaging.

People concerned about germs/residue/smudges do clean their own jewelry. I thinks it's reasonable to swipe with alcohol before sending, if only to reassure yourself, but what you are imagining doesn't seem likely enough to merit a change in practice.
posted by kapers at 12:28 PM on February 6, 2018

Thank you everyone, you've given me much food for thought. Currently, I'm leaning towards placing the earrings in a small ziploc bag, sealing that with the security tape, put the bag in a cardboard jewelry box and seal with my usual pretty washi tape and then put everything in a small poly mailer. Would that work?
posted by whitelotus at 6:41 PM on February 6, 2018

Perhaps try that method, and see how comfortable you feel if/when anything comes back as "return to sender." You mention in your question this isn't a problem that's occurred yet with earring sales, as you've just branched out, so I think you will have to judge your own anxiety levels if you get this type of return in real time.

(Most of the other replies have noted that this is a rather striking level of concern. You may feel more at ease restricting your earring merchandising to in-person craft fairs or displays at local shops, rather than involving mail order.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:11 PM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Coincidentally, I was trying to read up on lost mail today and here's articles on what happens to it. (I doubt they are trying on your earrings.) Also, if you are having a lot of things lost in the mail, you really need to shell out for tracking numbers because apparently that's the only way to track anything down.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:14 PM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Iris Gambol: Offline will be even worse. Many sellers have horror stories about people trying on earrings at craft fairs before they could be stopped despite signs explicitly telling them not to do so. They have had to eat the losses. As for shop owners, they wouldn't monitor such things and there are also additional issues with wear-and-tear, breakage and theft.

jenfullmoon: All my items are tracked which is how they are eventually returned to me via my post office. The problem is I am sending from overseas and my foreign tracking numbers are not recognized by the USPS system.
posted by whitelotus at 7:35 PM on February 6, 2018

For fairs, at least: Display the earrings anchored to cork board, post backs facing in (slide the clear plastic/silicone type onto French wires), so they can't be picked up? Then if someone wants to handle them, they need to ask, at which point they'll be told directly not to try them on?
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:14 PM on February 6, 2018

They might just be returned to you because the recipient doesn't pay any import tax or whatever is needed in their country. Do you have a disclaimer on your selling site that the buyer may be responsible for such fees outside of the US?

I am on team resell, no sterilization necessary.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:49 AM on February 7, 2018

Your new packaging plan sounds great to me.

If customers simply aren't claiming the packages, then they're just bouncing back upstream through the system in an international game of "hot potato" where nobody wants responsibility/blame, but everyone knows that they're not getting paid much if anything. Good news is, this really doesn't mean there are any new opportunities or motivation for someone to "borrow" the earrings -- if anything, rejected packages get fretted over more than usual until they are successfully handed off. Odds are, they're kept very securely as soon as they begin to break standard protocol, simply because nobody wants to be the one to mishandle them.
posted by teremala at 10:11 AM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

WeekendJen: my policies state that they are supposed to pay import taxes. I don't think that is what is happening here because the customers usually complain that the parcels never arrived.
posted by whitelotus at 4:31 PM on February 7, 2018

Do you have a disclaimer on your selling site that the buyer may be responsible for such fees outside of the US?

whitelotus isn't in the US.
posted by Margalo Epps at 11:02 AM on February 8, 2018

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